The resurgence of COVID-19 across the world has renewed concerns surrounding the long-term effects of the disease on its survivors. Adding to these existing worries, a new study has found that one in three survivors (34 percent) was diagnosed with psychological or neurological conditions within six of contracting the novel coronavirus infection.
According to the research published in The Lancet Psychiatry, anxiety (17 percent) and mood disorders (14 percent) were found to be the most common disorders among COVID-19 survivors. The study, which involved over 230,000 patients, is the largest to date to suggest a connection between the SARS-CoV-2 infection and ensuing neurological and mental conditions.
"Although the individual risks for most disorders are small, the effect across the whole population may be substantial for health and social care systems due to the scale of the pandemic and that many of these conditions are chronic," said Prof. Paul Harrison, lead author of the study, in a statement.
Largest Study to Explore Link
Concerns surrounding long-term mental and neurological effects among survivors have been prevalent ever since the pandemic began its aggressive global march. In an older observational study by the team, which evaluated the records of over 62,000 cases of COVID-19, it was reported that nearly one in five COVID-19 survivors received a psychiatric diagnosis with the first three months of infection.
For the current study, the scientists examined the electronic health records of 236,379 COVID-19 patients above the age of ten, who had been infected with the disease between January 2020 and December 2020, and survived. 14 mental and neurological health disorders were investigated.
The researchers from the University of Oxford also reviewed the records of 105,579 patients diagnosed with influenza, and 236,038 patients with other respiratory tract infections, during the same period. Findings from all the three groups compared.
Higher Incidence of Conditions in COVID-19 Survivors
It was found that around 34 percent of the survivors were diagnosed with a mental or neurological disorder within six months of infection. For 13 percent of these patients, it was their first recorded diagnosis of a psychological or neurological condition.
The most prevalent diagnoses among COVID-19 survivors were anxiety disorders (17 percent) and mood disorders (14 percent). Substance misuse disorders and insomnia were found in 7 percent and 5 percent of the patients respectively. Though the frequency of neurological complications was lower, 2.1 percent suffered from ischaemic strokes, 0.6 percent from a brain hemorrhage, and 0.7 percent from dementia.
"These are real-world data from a large number of patients. They confirm the high rates of psychiatric diagnoses after COVID-19, and show that serious disorders affecting the nervous system (such as stroke and dementia) occur too. While the latter are much rarer, they are significant, especially in those who had severe COVID-19," noted Prof. Harrison.
Increased Likeliness of Developing Disorders
The study also found that after taking into account factors such as existing health concerns, sex, age, and ethnicity, COVID-19 patients had a 44 percent higher chance of having psychological or neurological conditions than those affected by influenza of comparable severity. In comparison to individuals who had contracted any other respiratory tract infections, COVID-19 survivors were 16 percent more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric or nervous complications.
"Our results indicate that brain diseases and psychiatric disorders are more common after COVID-19 than after flu or other respiratory infections, even when patients are matched for other risk factors. We now need to see what happens beyond six months" said Dr. Max Taquet, co-author of the study. While he admitted that the study does not shed light on underlying mechanisms, he stressed that it pointed towards the urgency of identifying and addressing them.